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Flamingo Marina: Happy ending expected to a long tale of woe

August 8, 2019

FLAMINGO, Guanacaste — If it weren’t for bad luck, the Flamingo Marina would have no luck at all.

It was “the first full-service marina in Costa Rica,” as described by past propietor Jim McKee, who ran it from 1989 until 2003. But it ran afoul of opposition on several levels, and the government shut it down for reasons that to this day are disputed. It’s been closed for more than 10 years now, squandering an ideal location between marinas operating in Papagayo and Herradura.

By all accounts that’s about to change, as a group led by Dr. Samuel Shaheen of Saginaw, Michigan, has submitted a marina proposal said to be on the verge of approval. The big hurdle is approval by SETENA, the National Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry, and that has reportedly already been granted, though the paperwork is not yet complete.

Joaquín Gamboa, project manager for the Marina Flamingo Development Group, said this week that he was told SETENA had already approved the project, and the only thing lacking was signatures on the document.

Plans also have to be approved by CIMAT, the Commission of Tourist Marinas, and by the Municipality of Santa Cruz, neither of which is expected to be opposed. Backers say construction could be under way by February or March.

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Costa Rica’s Greatest Places

In this series, The Tico Times Travel section takes an in-depth look at some of Costa Rica’s greatest destinations, with multiple articles exploring the attractions of each. Throughout the month of December, we’ll visit the sumptuous Flamingo Coast — Playa Grande, Conchal, Brasilito, Flamingo, Potrero and Las Catalinas.

The Flamingo Coast
• Dec. 5: Overview
• Dec. 8: Marina
• Dec. 12: Real Estate
• Dec. 15: Adventure by sea
• Dec. 19: Adventure by land
• Dec. 22: Hotels
• Dec. 26: Restaurants
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Smooth sailing?

Gamboa said this proposal has not run into the headwinds of opposition that stalled past bids.

“To date, in the studies that were done on the sociological impact, there wasn’t any opposition among 250 people they interviewed,” he said, although there were “some suggestions,” including the obvious need for a project that’s environmentally sound.

Plans for the new marina.

Plans for the new marina. (Courtesy of Marina Flamingo Development)

“The project would create almost 600 jobs during the construction period of two and a half years,” he said. “And there would be about 400 jobs once the whole project is finished. There will be a hotel with 250 rooms, four stories tall. There’ll be a convention center for 800 people, then a commercial area of 9,000 square meters … and within that a bunch of places for restaurants, bars and all that.”

Plans call for 211 slips for boats ranging from 40 feet to 109 feet, with a fueling station and dry dock. Some 50 condominiums are also planned on the site of the nearby Mariner Hotel, which would be demolished.

The cost is estimated at $33.5 million.

Location, location

Asked how the Flamingo Marina would compete with the other marinas along the Pacific Coast, Joaquín said, “The geographic location is privileged,” with natural shelter right in front of Flamingo and easy access to nearby Tamarindo.

At the Papagayo Marina, there’s no town, just megaresorts like the Andaz and the Four Seasons, so boat crews have to rent a car or hire a taxi to go anywhere. The Los Sueños Marina north of Jacó and Marina Pez Vela in Quepos don’t have that problem, but Los Sueños is 100 miles away, and Flamingo is a natural stopping point along the coast for boats headed north or south.

A rendering of the planned new Flamingo Marina.

A rendering of the planned new Flamingo Marina. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

“Those that are in more populated areas, like Los Sueños, those are the successful marinas,” Joaquin said. “That’s why they’re full of boats. So it’s not competition for us, because we’d be the only one in Guanacaste that is very well located in a good fishing area.”

In the beginning

Flamingo was more or less discovered in the early 1960s by a Canadian investor named George Howarth, who bought 250 acres here for about $10,000, McKee said. This land included the North Ridge (the big peninsula between Potrero and Brasilito bays), the South Ridge (a point south of today’s Flamingo Beach Resort), all of Flamingo Beach between them, much of Potrero Beach and most of the land between these areas and the current highway.

“The story is now told that George was concerned the Cuban missile crisis would result in nuclear war, this at a time when people in the U.S. were constructing bomb shelters and all this other stuff,” said McKee, who ran the marina from 1989 to 2003 and has written an unpublished history of the area. “So George supposedly did a study and it showed that Costa Rica was the safest area, not only from bombs, but also from the fallout. So he decided to buy the land in the area known as Flamingo.”

According to a 2004 Tico Times story, Howarth named this area Flamingo (it was previously Playa Blanca) because he confused the roseate spoonbill with a flamingo, which doesn’t exist in Costa Rica. He was a bit of a controlling landlord, permitting residents one dog and one cat, decreeing that all homes had to have tile or thatched roofs, and shutting off the generator that powered nine homes from a switch in his bedroom when he went to bed at 9 p.m.

A 2006 Tico Times story recalls that Howarth was trying to turn Flamingo into an exclusive enclave for the rich and famous “by prohibiting access to the beach and terrorizing his neighbors in nearby small fishing villages.” A Tico Times reporter and photographer visited in 1972, incurring Howarth’s wrath, and they were forced to surrender the film containing the pictures they had taken and were invited to leave the property at gunpoint.

The Page 1 story based on this episode, picked up by La Nación, sparked national outrage and helped doom Howarth. He subsequently made the mistake of threatening José Figueres the younger, president from 1994 to 1998, with vicious dogs, and he ended up being kicked out of the country.

Enter the Osbornes

Howarth sold his land in Flamingo for $1.1 million (at a profit of 10,900 percent) to the MacCalpin brothers, Clovis and George, but by 1981 the land came into the possession of Ray Osborne, a developer from Las Vegas. Osborne decided he wanted to build a marina.

The old Flamingo Marina.

The old Flamingo Marina. (Courtesy of James McKee)

“He became one of the three contenders for the self-appointed position of ‘Gringo King of Flamingo,’ Jim McKee said with a laugh, reading from his book.

Osborne managed to get his marina underway, but by 1983 it ran afoul of local authorities who ordered construction stopped. But by June 1983, an official concession was granted by the municipality, and the marina was now legit. Osborne ended up building docks to accommodate 10 or 12 boats, McKee said, but the marina was not dredged and much of it turned dry at low tide.

In 1987, Osborne suffered a devastating accident at his cliffside home on the point of the South Ridge.

“He was walking up the stairs,” said his son, Michael Osborne, “and we never had a key to the front door, so there was a little ledge and you walked around like this. And he fell backwards, he fell like 65 feet” — landing on the rocks below.

Michael said he and his brothers chartered a jet and flew their father to Houston, where doctors declared him brain-dead. They inserted a shunt to relieve the pressure on his brain and suggested that he be taken back to Flamingo, where he would probably die in four months.

“He got married to a lady from Chile 12 days before the accident, who was pregnant,” Michael said. “She was a chemical engineer, and she kept him on life support, just a feeding tube, with carrots and broccoli and vegetables for six years.” (Ray Osborne was finally taken off life support and died in 1993.)

The Chilean woman, Chelsa, effectively gained control of Ray Osborne’s assets, though she was locked in a legal battle with Osborne’s children for 14 years before they settled.

Under new management

Meanwhile, two years after Ray’s accident, along came McKee, a tech entrepreneur from California who sailed here from San Diego, intending to sail around the world.

James McKee took over the management of the Flamingo Marina in 1989 and was forced out in 2003. He lives in nearby Huacas today.

James McKee took over the management of the Flamingo Marina in 1989 and was forced out in 2003. He lives in nearby Huacas today. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

“I pulled into Flamingo and stayed two weeks, and I decided I’ll stay another couple of weeks,” McKee said. “And that went on for four months, and then I found out about the story of the marina, and Ray was in a coma. I started digging into it.”

Jim ended up buying the marina from Chelsa in 1989 for $350,000, as he recalls. Why did he go from running technology companies in California to running a marina?

“Looked like a fun project,” he said. “I had a boat.”

McKee submitted elaborate expansion plans to three branches of the government — a dam would be built in the middle of the marina, along with a bypass channel for the estuary, and water from the shallow end would be pumped out so that the bottom could be dug up and made deeper. He went to work in earnest in January 1990.

“So for about two and a half weeks we kept (pumps) running 24/7, and we pumped this dry,” he said. “Then we had 18 pieces of heavy equipment — dump trucks, front loaders, excavators — and we dug this out.”

The good old days

During the marina’s heyday, it was a thriving enterprise, said Federico Marín, a Flamingo developer and builder.

The marina in 1992.

The marina in 1992. (Courtesy of James McKee)

“The marina was operational for at least 10 years, very successfully,” he said. “There were international fishing tournaments. … Tyson, the biggest producer of chicken in the States, used to have a big mother ship called the Tyson Pride that came here for three or four months, with three or four sportfishing boats. … When the marina closed, things turned really sour here.”

I asked McKee when was the marina was finished, and he said, “It was never finished.” The master plan called for the construction of a bunch of condos, but he could never get the permits to build them. He couldn’t even get permission to build a new fuel dock.

But the first phase of approved construction was completed in 1998, and there was a long checklist from the government of standards that had to be met before a 15-year concession would be granted.

“The municipality, expecting controversy, hired an independent engineer to come in and evaluate whether we had completed all the items in the first phase,” McKee said. “He documented it all, the municipality came out, all the members, came out and physically inspected. Every member also signed off, as well as the alcalde [mayor] and the head of the legal department. Everybody signed off, saying we had completed the first phase, which officially started the clock on the 15-year concession.”

Shut down

This concession should have allowed the Flamingo Marina to operate until 2013. But big trouble lay ahead — in fact, just five years ahead, when the municipality would revoke the marina’s concession.

“In 2003, when they canceled the concsssion, they verbally said they were canceling it because we were contaminating the water,” McKee said. “In fact, before it got canceled, I hired one of the best testing houses in San José, paid them to come out here, and they spent a week testing water at the fuel dock, sand samples at the bottom, mid-level, top-level, all through the marina they tested water.

A shipshape marina — those were the days.

A shipshape marina — those were the days. (Courtesy of James McKee)

“And the only place they found fecal matter was up in the estuary at the pipe coming out of the Flamingo Beach Hotel.”

Marín said, “The reason why it was shut down — well, there are two versions. The government said that he refused to pay any fee to the municipality or anybody. But the marina was closed because of environmental issues, or pollution.”

McKee said there was never any dispute over any fee, that he was never asked to pay more than he was paying, and that the marina had been proven clean and green.

“So all the sudden they said, ‘Oh, it wasn’t really contamination, the reason we closed it.’ And I said, ‘Well, why did you close it?’ And they said, ‘It was because you didn’t complete all the items of the first phase.’

“And I said, ‘What about this?’” McKee showed them the papers where all the officials of the municipality had certified that the marina did complete all the items in the first phase.

The master plan for the old Flamingo Marina, featuring dozens of condos that were never built.

The master plan for the old Flamingo Marina, featuring dozens of condos that were never built. (Courtesy of James McKee)

“And they said, ‘Oh, that was a different municipality.’ And I said, ‘A municipality isn’t a person.’ And so they called a big huge meting, brought attorneys from San José, we reviewed the entire book. They went off into a closed-door meeting and they came back and said, ‘Well, we have determined that you didn’t complete all the items of the first phase.’ Case closed.”

Eyes on a prize

Why did these officials want to shut down McKee’s marina?

In short, he said, because they were approached by influential people with deep pockets who wanted to take it over.

“They passed the marina law because they figured out what marinas are about,” he said. “It’s not boats, it’s real estate. You can buy a $100,000 condo and you can sell it for a million dollars.”

By now the Los Sueños Marina and the Marriott megaresort had been built in Herradura, just north of Jacó, and people from Los Sueños were angling to take over the Flamingo Marina.

“I’m normally not a quitter, never have been in my life,” McKee said. But about six months before the marina was shut down, he took a trip to the Islas Murciélago off Santa Rosa National Park with his small son. He showed me a framed picture of himself sitting on a pretty hillside with his son.

Master plan for the old Flamingo Marina.

Master plan for the old Flamingo Marina. (Courtesy of James McKee)

“I was thinking this ain’t working, man,” he said. “And it was at a point where I realized that it was like fighting Mother Nature when you’re out on the boat.”

McKee told his associates that he was going to resign, but nobody stepped forward to take his place. A few months later the marina revoked his concession.

“When they came out, one of the first things when they walked up to the desk, I said, ‘Where’s your court order?’” McKee recalled. “They said, ‘We don’t have one.’ I said, ‘Where’s your notice from the municipality signed off by the consejo?’ ‘We don’t have one.’ I said, ‘So by what authority are you closing the marina?’ And he kind of turned and did like this, and they had 27 assault weapon-armed municipal police standing behind them, and he said, ‘By this authority.’”

A new hope

So that was 2003, and 16 years went by with the marina dead in the water. Today the only remnant of it is a few pilings in the water big enough for pelicans to roost on.

Los Sueños and a dozen other developers stepped up to submit proposals to revive it, but none was ever approved.

But perhaps the time has come. The Shaheen development group appears to have found the secret sauce to accomplish the impossible and rebuild the Flamingo Marina. With SETENA’s reported approval, the CIMAT is expected to sign off, followed by the municipality, which actually grants the concession. Backers say you might be seeing construction here by February, March or maybe April.

Marie Yates, who hails from England but has been here 40 years, running the popular restaurant Marie’s in Flamingo, said business was booming year-round when the marina was operational.

“Fishing season is May through September,” she said — the low season in most of Costa Rica. “So it brings in a whole different crowd of people.”

The reopening of the marina would be “a huge boost to the area,” she said. “It also is really great for the local economy, I mean, there are all the young guys that live in Brasilito, they’re kind of hanging around doing nothing. They all get jobs on boats, either cleaning or as mates, or captains. It’s excellent for the area.”

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